Jul 03 2008

A brief argument: reviewers don’t have to be credentialed to be relevant

Published by at 3:43 am under Book Review,Commentary

When authors or fans challenge negative reviews, they sometimes say something like “what have you written, because I bet it’s awful.” I think that reflects a fundamentally wrong conception of reviewing. Every day, people evaluate and suggest things without any experience of having made them. For example, over the past few years I’ve suggested that friends stay away from (ugly) Pontiac Azteks, (shoddy) Craftsman tools, and (inedible) McDonald’s food. But I’ve never designed a car, built a tool and hardly ever cook. Does my lack of experience disqualify me as a relevant reviewer?

I don’t think so. I think that a qualified reviewer is anyone who can articulate 1) whether the work was effective for them and 2) that they are similar enough to their audience that their reactions to the product are relevant. For example, I think that for the average young American, my opinion of fast-food is actually more relevant than a professional chef’s, not less. I imagine that my expectations for food are similar to those of most young Americans, whereas the chef would have very different concerns.

So when an author challenges the authorial credentials of a reviewer, I think that’s completely missing the point. Reviewers are speaking to the concerns of readers, and most readers aren’t authors. They don’t think like authors do! Second, I think that challenging the reviewer is inappropriate because it usually misreads the reviewer’s message. Most reviewers are not trying to insinuate that “my work is better than yours.”  Even if their own fiction suffered from every one of the mistakes they pointed out in your work, pointing that out wouldn’t make your work any better.

ADDENDUM: I think there’s one instance when it’s OK to say that an observer is unqualified to review: when he doesn’t know what is feasible. For example, a artist might look at an engineer’s building plan and give some outlandishly unfeasible objection like “this building is ugly, because the base isn’t two-dimensional.” The engineer could rightly say that “that’s crazy– it’s not even remotely possible to design a building with a 2-D base. Because you have no idea what engineers are able to do, you should stop reviewing us.” However, I think that this exception generally does not apply to unpublished reviewers of fiction. When a reviewer says that “Eragon’s characterization is poor compared to Harry Potter/Narnia/etc.,” he is demonstrating that he has a realistic standard for what good writing can be. (Of course, we can disagree whether Narnia or HP are actually good standards for characterization, but they are certainly feasible).

I’ll leave you with this parting thought: You don’t have to be a car designer to know that the Pontiac Aztek came straight from the deepest and darkest pits of hell.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “A brief argument: reviewers don’t have to be credentialed to be relevant”

  1. Nayanon 05 Jun 2013 at 11:38 pm

    “When authors or fans challenge negative reviews, they sometimes say something like “what have you written, because I bet it’s awful.” I think that reflects a fundamentally wrong conception of reviewing. Every day, people evaluate and suggest things without any experience of having made them. For example, over the past few years I’ve suggested that friends stay away from (ugly) Pontiac Azteks, (shoddy) Craftsman tools, and (inedible) McDonald’s food. But I’ve never designed a car, built a tool and hardly ever cook. Does my lack of experience disqualify me as a relevant reviewer?”

    I agree. I am not an actor. But I can say that Kristen Stewart is not a good actress. Sorry, Twilight fans.

    Is McDonald’s food really bad? I have not tried it. I rarely eat fast food.

  2. B. McKenzieon 06 Jun 2013 at 6:15 am

    Very much of McDonald’s is “cooked” in a microwave, and they habitually break my #1 rule of food that every meat product must cost more than a dollar. 🙂

  3. Nayanon 06 Jun 2013 at 6:45 am

    What about Indian food? Is Indian food popular in America? I have heard that Americans don’t like spicy food.

  4. B. McKenzieon 06 Jun 2013 at 5:08 pm

    “What about Indian food? Is Indian food popular in America?” Hmm. I’m having trouble coming up with any hard statistics here, but one blogger found that there are about 300 Indian restaurants in New York City. That’s about one Indian restaurant for every 800 of the 236,000 Indian-Americans in New York City. *IF* that ratio holds up across the rest of the United States, there would be about 4,000 Indian restaurants in the United States (which has about 3.18 million Indian-Americans). 4,000 restaurants is not a microscopic number, but it’s pretty small compared to, say, the 5,800 Taco Bells or 1,200 Chipotles among Tex-Mex restaurants. I would venture to say that traditional American fare (e.g. burgers & sandwiches), Mexican/Tex-Mex, and (probably relatively recently) east Asian restaurants are vastly more popular here.



    “I have heard that Americans don’t like spicy food.” By Indian standards, probably not. But I think that the U.S. diet is relatively spicy compared to most other Western countries. (For example, the most popular condiment in the United States is salsa by a 40% margin over ketchup). In Canada, it’s mayo > ketchup > mustard.

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